Nikola Jokic Triple-Doubles as Nuggets Beat Spurs in Game 7, Advance to Round 2April 28, 2019
The playoff dream lives on for the Denver Nuggets after they defeated the San Antonio Spurs 90-86 in Game 7 of the Western Conference quarterfinals Saturday at the Pepsi Center.
Nothing in this series came easy for the Nuggets, though they banded together under the biggest possible spotlight. Their defense gave up 120 points to San Antonio in a Game 6 defeat, setting up the winner-take-all showdown.
Nikola Jokic put up a triple-double in the win with 21 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists. Jamal Murray (23 points) sealed the win on a jumper with 36.8 seconds remaining after the Spurs got to within two points.
Bryn Forbes had his best game of the series in defeat with 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting. DeMar DeRozan also had 19 points but was 7-of-21 from the field.
Nuggets Not Ready to Join Western Conference Elite vs. Damian Lillard, Blazers
Even though it can be a tired cliche, there is truth to the notion that teams in all sports must go through a progression before they are ready to win a championship.
As an example, the Golden State Warriors were eliminated from the playoffs before the Western Conference Finals in 2012-13 and 2013-14 before becoming the NBA's most dominant team.
While it would be foolish to suggest the Nuggets are on the verge of becoming a dynasty, there is something to be said about their steady progression in recent years. They've increased their win totals in each of the past four seasons, taking the experience from being eliminated from playoff contention on the final day of the 2017-18 regular season to winning 54 games and a Northwest Division title this year.
Despite entering the Western Conference playoffs as the No. 2 seed, these Nuggets always seemed to have something missing. They went a combined 2-6 against the Warriors and Houston Rockets in the regular season.
The Ringer's Dan Devine wrote last month that Denver looked like the second-best team in the West at various times this season:
"But Denver's struggles to contain elite high-octane, high-volume scorers like [James] Harden, Stephen Curry, and Klay Thompson loom large. Denver doesn't have to pitch shutouts to win in the postseason, but it will have to keep opposing gunners from putting up crooked numbers. As good as they've looked defensively at times, the Nuggets' reliance on a 7-footer as the heart of their offense poses problems when dealing with opposing attacks that can spread the floor and target plodding defenders in space."
Nothing about Denver's series-clinching performance against the Spurs inspires confidence that things have been figured out.
Crediting the Nuggets defense for limiting San Antonio to 36.5 percent shooting would be easier to sell if DeRozan didn't have a history of coming up short in the spotlight, or if Derrick White wasn't counted on to be the Spurs' third-best offensive player.
The internet was full of comments throughout this game about how ugly both the Spurs and Nuggets were performing:
Now, the Nuggets are moving on to face the Portland Trail Blazers, who have has gone through their own steady progression to find playoff success. Their failure last year in a first-round sweep at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans seemed to serve as a motivator, particularly for Damian Lillard.
Lillard has transformed into the kind of shooter who is dangerous from anywhere on the floor:
This also highlights an issue for the Nuggets that Devine mentioned about opposing teams' ability to "spread the floor and target plodding defenders in space."
The Blazers have the ability to space out the floor with their starting five of Lillard, CJ McCollum, Enes Kanter, Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu.
Denver has one superstar and quality depth, but no one who has proved capable of providing the kind of support Jokic needs for the team to play consistent playoff basketball.
Murray likes to think of himself as a star and showed it at times in this series, particularly in Game 5 with 23 points and seven assists. But there were also long stretches when he disappeared against the Spurs. He had six points in a Game 3 loss and shot 7-of-18 in Game 6.
All signs point to a bright future for the Nuggets, led by Jokic. Michael Porter Jr. is a potential wild card who has superstar upside, but his injury history is concerning.
While the long-term future in Denver looks great, the present points to an easy path for the Blazers to reach the Western Conference Finals.
This season should go down as an unqualified success for the Nuggets regardless of what happens in the next round, but there is a learning curve that comes along with being a great team. They haven't reached that point yet.
The Nuggets will host the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals on Monday at 10:30 p.m. ET.